Friday, October 9, 2009

Which is better; urban or rural?

Once again, I was struck by a conversation I heard on NPR while working in my studio. This time, writer David Owen was insisting that New York City is the most environmentally sustainable place to live, possibly moreso than Seattle or Portland. I've never been to New York, so I don't have a strong opinion either way. But I've been considering the question of the environmental impact of city life versus country life, which has plagued me since moving out here to the sticks.

When I lived in Seattle, I biked almost everywhere. It was fairly easy to navigate the streets and find alternate routes that were more direct by bicycle than by car. If I was too tired or felt unsafe, I could wait for a bus and put my bike on it to go the rest of the way to my destination. My housemates and I grew gardens in our backyards to supplement our groceries. I think people living in the city can be very conscientious, and I do think it makes sense to condense all of that human activity to the smallest area possible to reduce impact.

At the same time, I recall feeling so overwhelmed all of the time by the constant noise, light, and stimuli around me. There are cars everywhere. Businesses keep their lights on, along with streetlights and parking lot lights, all night long for safety purposes. City life is busy, there is always something going on, and all of that entertainment uses a ton of energy and creates never- ending streams of garbage. Even now, when I visit Seattle or Portland, there is such a variety of exciting things to do, I feel like I'm missing out on a hundred of them. I also notice that I feel bombarded with storefronts full of enticing things to buy, and I feel the urge to consume.

In 2000, I moved back to Olympia, which is a very moderately-sized city with great communities. When I walk down the street, I always see people I know, and have known for 20 years, since it's where I went to college. Bicycling is easy in Olympia, the bus system is convenient, there are two co-ops, and people are generally very environmentally conscious. Truth be told, it has been the easiest place for me to live according to my own environmental standards. Many of my Olympia friends grow year-round gardens that are so much more manageable than my own, right in their small backyards. There is a thriving farmers market. People in Olympia produce their own biodiesel, compost, work together in community gardens, offer all kinds of classes and workshops for free, and most are the nicest people you've ever met. Can you tell I love Olympia?

But, we couldn't afford a home in Olympia when it came time to buy, and we were interested in having a large garden and goats. We had the idea that, in case of some kind of disaster, we wanted to be self-sufficient, as well as possible. The spot we eventually bought is 5.3 acres with a diverse ecosystem. There were already buildings on the property, so we wouldn't have to dig a well or put in a septic system. We lived in the 1970 mobile home for 5 years, then dismantled it by hand (recycling most of it), and had a 1400 s.f., passive solar home built on its footprint. We have replaced almost all of the lawns with vegetable and perennial gardens, which do require some watering, but no mowing.

Since we have a well, we are not pulling water from a larger system, and there is no treatment necessary. Our septic is the same story. It is a small system, and we use only biodegradeable cleaners and products so that our system can filter naturally. We originally thought that Mike would eventually move his job to the Elma school district, only 6 miles away. However, he has grown comfortable with his place as Special Ed teacher at the alternative high school that is a 45 minute drive away. This is our biggest carbon contributor. I have been working at home, restricting my drives to Olympia to about once per week, when I run all of the errands. Now that Anouk is in school, I drive her both ways, and this is another conundrum. She could catch the bus to a larger school, saving that gas and those emissions, but we are very attached to the 3-room-schoolhouse she attends, 12 miles away. When we can afford it, we will buy a hybrid or electric car. Growing our own food means less packaging, less fuel to transport produce, fewer pesticides being used, and the few animals we raise for meat living a good, healthy life. And we don't buy stuff. There is no need for a lot of stuff, and it's not in our faces, tempting us to buy, buy, buy. I don't need nice clothes, and what I have is bought second-hand.

Ultimately, I think people living in both rural and urban environments can make good choices. I love living out here. I love the quiet most of all, and the darkness at night, the trees. The guy across the street has a special whistle to call the deer, who come in the evenings to eat grain out of his hand. We have a 30-foot waterfall near our house. I hate city life. It feels oppressive and confining. When I visit a large city, I can't stop thinking of all of the toilets flushing, dishes being washed, flourescent lights, trash, etc. Not everyone can live in the city. And not every city-dweller is making conscientious choices. Most of us are just doing the best we can with what we have.

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